SETTING THE AGENDA FOR THINGS FREDERRIFIC for Thursday, October 31, 2013.
LET’S CONCLUDE THE OCTOBER OVERVIEW by hitting a couple of areas of my life that I missed in yesterday’s post. I skipped church for three weeks in a row, which is uncharacteristic for me — probably the longest gap in five or six years. I feel moderately guilty but also somewhat defiantly justified. Cheryl hasn’t been able to go because of her health, our kids won’t go with me, the sermons are kind of long and boring, and I’ve been using the extra time to exercise and work. I do miss the music and I miss the verse-by-verse Bible study that is a signature of Calvary Chapel. I’ll be back next week. We’re working our way through 1st Corinthians, which is such a jewel. I’ve already got a set of Anki flashcards about 1st Corinthians in my current rotation.
JOHN ROBB has an interesting idea for housing “stacks” to support independent and resilient living for families. I think he’s heading in more or less the right direction but there are a couple of course corrections he needs to make. He’s thinking of a stack as a checklist of things to do whereas I understand a (software) stack as being a checklist of things that have already been done for me so that I can focus on building my applications. Speaking of which:
WHY DID IT TAKE ME 52 YEARS to discover the Python Natural Language Toolkit? This is awesomely fun.
IN MY FIRST JOB AFTER COLLEGE I was staff writer for Sextant, the magazine for Heath/Zenith (get it?) computer users. It was a great experience in many ways. I learned a lot from Charlie Floto, the publisher. I learned by watching Charlie, and later David E. Davis Jr., the publisher of Automobile Magazine, that “publisher” is one of the best job titles in the world. Anyway, I’ve always been interested in exploring with publishing format (or what programmers now call “patterns”). So I pitched to Charlie the idea of a regular one-page column of news tidbits to be called “Scuttlebutt.” Somewhat to my surprise, he went along with it, and it became a regular feature of the magazine.
I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT SCUTTLEBUTT as I read the Politico Daily Playbook every morning. For those who are not aware, Politico is the market-leading source for Washington news these days. It has supplanted the Washington Post with more energy, more urgency, and a faster pace. The format of their daily Playbook, sent out every morning, is a series of maybe 10 or 20 paragraphs setting the agenda for the day’s news cycle. I think this format might work nicely for me, so I’m going to give it a try under the heading of “Scuttlebutt.” This first edition will be a monthly roundup, then we’ll see how things work out as far as frequency.
IT’S NEARLY THE END OF OCTOBER. It’s been a busy month in every aspect of my life.
AT HOME, CHERYL HAS HAD a lot of health problems with her knees so bad that she has to use a cane or a wheelchair to get around the house, aggravated by a flareup of a weird autoimmune disorder called erythema nodosum that creates sore fatty bumps under the skin of the legs. Our doctor put her on steroids and as the month ends the erythema is receding; but her knees are still bone on bone, no cartilage at all. Our daughter Kelsey, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, just got her first real job — a big milestone for both her and us. I don’t want to steal her thunder, so I won’t give any details, but I will hint that teddy bears are involved. Thirteen-year-old Parker gave me a lot of grey hairs last year in 7th grade as he several times went on strike and simply stopped participating in school, so it’s been a big relief that this year he’s taking it more seriously. I made a pretty big parenting goof with him last week (over-zealous Internet monitoring which seemed more like spying) so I have been in the doghouse and working to regain his trust. Unfortunately I have a well-earned reputation for being kind of nosy with my kids.
ON THE FRED FRONT, I have been struggling with my weight for several years now and continue to do so. I have been hovering back and forth between 270 and 275 (an all-time high) for a couple of months. I am doing some good things — I am doing between 60 and 90 minutes on the exercise bike three or four times a week — but I have some poor nutrition habits (especially a taste for Dr. Pepper) that are preventing me from making headway.
PSYCHOLOGICALLY I HAVE BEEN GRAPPLING with a persistent sense of being trapped in a great many difficult situations in my life. Again unfortunately, my sober assessment is that this is a realistic perception. I’m in a bunch of pretty deep holes that I need to dig myself out from, and the only answer is patient, perseverant hard work on all fronts, with as few self-defeating excursions as possible. I’ve long thought that failure avoidance is underrated as a life skill.
ONE DEEP HOLE IS FINANCIAL. WE have a pretty good income (especially considering we’re not living in one of the major metropolitan areas with housing prices in the high six figures) but we are tied down by a boatload of debt. My day job is as a government contractor so the government shutdown was a major problem for me — we got the “drop tools” order on Oct. 1 so per the Anti-Deficiency Act it was actually illegal for me to do any useful contract work until the government opened back up. My employer ate the overhead for all of us for that two weeks so I’m pretty sure we can kiss that holiday bonus goodbye. The overall prospect for our contract is kind of iffy with another shutdown looming, sequestration threatening to take a slice of the budget, and a re-competition coming up next fall.
WE HAVE SOME FINANCIAL DIVERSIFICATION because I own two publishing businesses but neither of them is making much money at all right now. Cheryl and I started Nimble Books in 2004. I now have around 250 books in print, but I’ve only published a couple of new books in the last 24 months because i got sidetracked with the idea for my other company, PageKicker. Predictably, Nimble’s revenue has declined because there’s a pretty strong decay curve for the sales of most books. I did some research on this a few years ago, when I subscribed to Nielsen BookScan, and I found that the unit sales for most books follow a five-year pattern like this: 100, 50, 25, 10, 5. Of course, books with strong legs do way better in the outyears, which is why good backlist titles are so desirable. But if your numbers are similar to those just provided, you have to keep swimming, like a shark, just to stay afloat.
I only published one book this month: AGE OF ICE AND STEEL by Alexandros Boufesis (Amazon). I’m very fond of this – the first historical novel I’ve published, about the German-Soviet War in the East, 1941-1945. The Facebook page is doing great (450 likes) but so far that hasn’t translated into sales. To be perfectly frank, I’m kind of stumped how to proceed on marketing it. There are a ton of military history aficionados who will appreciate the topic (not usually given its due in English) but I haven’t got a good plan for connecting them to the book. Stay tuned (and help if you can!)
So to get Nimble Books back to financial health, I have to publish some more books. I have several in the queue, but only two near publication: BERNADOTTE’S ART OF WAR, about the Napoleonic marshal and King of Sweden, translated by grognard Daniel I. Radakovich, and a book about the Japanese battleship YAMATO by Hans Lengerer and Lars Ahlberg. The financial prospects for the book about Bernadotte are derisory–my Napoleonic titles have never sold much at all–unless there is a groundswell of interest from Swedish readers. The book about YAMATO should sell well but it will take a lot of work and be expensive to produce. Then there are several more naval titles in the queue. Naval books sell predictably but not in huge numbers, so I’ve got to come up with something else to get the numbers going in the right direction.
THAT’S WHAT PAGEKICKER IS ALL ABOUT. I’m getting tired of typing so I’ll say more about this in a future edition of Scuttlebutt.
I’VE BEEN ON FACEBOOK A lot recently, probably too much, which is part of the reason for this column. I’ve been participating in a lot of dialogues in the comment stream for Nimble author Pepe Escobar, who is (by US standards) far to the left on most issues, including Israel (where he is near the global median, I would say) and I’ve been discouraged to discover just how much anti-Semitism is lurking out there in the rest of the world, linked uneasily with or hidden just beneath fiery anti-Zionism. In the US, we’re way beyond anti-Semitism — it’s so old and stale, it’s like being still in favor of slavery. But this is a much bigger problem in the rest of the world than I realized. This would be a great topic for some large-scale data mining research.
DEDICATED READERS WILL KNOW THAT I’ve been using the open-source cross-platform flashcard software Anki as an ongoing investment in continuous improvement (kaizen) or “sharpening the saw.” I hit a roadblock in October and became overwhelmed by the number of cards in my deck: the daily review burden was becoming too much, which meant that I was winding up with a lot of overdue cards. That defeats the entire purpose of spaced repetition, since the Anki & other algorithms are designed to refresh knowledge right before it is lost. It also makes the whole process less fun since when you are answering overdue cards, you are getting lots more of them wrong, since (by definition) you have waited too long and your memory is past the predictable “expiry date.” So this month contained one of those “decision points” that George W. Bush made famous. I could have given up on flashcards — but instead I powered through.
One key adaptation was that I prioritized the overdue Anki cards by decreasing interval. The interval is the number of days needed between repetitions to retain the memory. So for something you know well — e.g. the capital of Italy is Rome — the interval is higher than something that’s hard to recall — e.g. the capital of Montenegro is Podgorica. Thus when you start with overdue cards with high intervals, the net effect is to push those cards off into the future, where they are not burdening your current review efforts. So one excellent achievement for October is that I maintained my commitment to measurable and adaptive lifelong learning. As the image below shows, it only took an average of 27 minutes per day.
Building a new server for PageKicker.com and had to update some of the social apps — found a great new command line Twitter client called t. Check out the link to glory in the true Unix-style piping and redirect capabilities. Requires ruby-dev and a Twitter dev account (both are easy and free to get).
As an avid social media user since way back when “social media” meant Usenet (posts by me pre-1994), I’ve always struggled with the question of how to represent my variegated interests. I’ve tried it all — posts, pages, links, likes, blogs, tweets, shares, friends, pokes, and pings–and I always wind up feeling that I’m not really giving the whole picture. So, in one of my periodic efforts to bring it all together, I’m setting up this single blog — One Blog to Rule Them All — from which I can do occasional long-form posts about everything that matters to me, and give a fuller picture of who I am and what I think about.
To start with, I have a very beloved family (wife Cheryl, daughter Kelsey, son Parker), I have friends, I have a home town (Ann Arbor, Michigan), I have a regular job working for a firm that provides services to the US goverment, I have an independent publishing firm (Nimble Books LLC, est. 2004) and I have an Internet startup (PageKicker.com, est. 2012). I have faults, I have flab (overweight!), I have fun hobbies, I have favorite authors, movies, music, TV shows, I have fierce opinions … you name it, I’ve got it, and probably too much of it! I have a hard time managing my attention sometimes. Maybe blogging about the big picture will help. So stay tuned to this space for essays about things that are important to me.